A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Going home that night Mr. Hendricks met Edith Boyd, and accompanied her for a block or two. At his corner he stopped.
"How's your mother, Edith?"
It was Mr. Hendricks' business to know his ward thoroughly.
"About the same. She isn't really sick, Mr. Hendricks. She's just low spirited, but that's enough. I hate to go home."
"Still, home's a pretty good place," he said. "Especially for a pretty girl." There was unmistakable meaning in his tone, and she threw up her head.
"I've got to get some pleasure out of life, Mr. Hendricks."
"Sure you have," he agreed affably. "But playing around with Louis Akers is like playing with a hand-grenade, Edith." She said nothing. "I'd cut him out, little girl. He's poor stuff. Mind, I'm not saying he's a fool, but he's a bad actor. Now if I was a pretty girl, and there was a nice fellow around like this Cameron, I'd be likely to think he was all right. He's got brains." Mr. Hendricks had a great admiration for brains.
"I'm sick of men."
He turned at her tone and eyed her sharply.
"Well, don't judge them all by Akers. This is my corner. Good-night. Not afraid to go on by yourself, are you?"
"If I ever was I've had a good many chances to get over it."
He turned the corner, but stopped and called after her.
"Tell Dan I'll be in to see him soon, Edith. Haven't seen him since he came back from France."
She went on, her steps lagging. She hated going home. When she reached the little house she did not go in at once. The March night was not cold, and she sat the step, hoping to see her mother's light go out in the second-story front windows. But it continued to burn steadily, and at last, with a gesture of despair, she rose and unlocked the door.
Almost at once she heard footsteps above, and a peevish voice.
"That you, Edie?"
"D'you mind bringing up the chloroform liniment and rubbing my back?"
"I'll bring it, mother."
She found it on the wainscoting in the untidy kitchen. She could hear the faint scurrying of water beetles over the oilcloth-covered floor, and then silence. She fancied myriads of tiny, watchful eyes on her, and something crunched under her foot. She felt like screaming. That new clerk at the store was always talking about homes. What did he know of squalid city houses, with their insects and rats, their damp, moldy cellars, their hateful plumbing? A thought struck her. She lighted the gas and stared around. It was as she had expected. The dishes had not been washed. They were piled in the sink, and a soiled dish-towel had been thrown over them.
She lowered the gas and went upstairs. The hardness had, somehow, gone out of her when she thought of Willy Cameron.
"Back bad again, is it?" she asked.
"It's always bad. But I've got a pain in my left shoulder and down my arm that's driving me crazy. I couldn't wash the dishes."
"Never mind the dishes. I'm not tired. Now crawl into bed and let me rub you."
Mrs. Boyd complied. She was a small, thin woman in her early fifties, who had set out to conquer life and had been conquered by it. The hopeless drab of her days stretched behind her, broken only by the incident of her widowhood, and stretched ahead hopelessly. She had accepted Dan's going to France resignedly, with neither protest nor undue anxiety. She had never been very close to Dan, although she loved him more than she did Edith. She was the sort of woman who has no fundamental knowledge of men. They had to be fed and mended for, and they had strange physical wants that made a great deal of trouble in the world. But mostly they ate and slept and went to work in the morning, and came home at night smelling of sweat and beer.
There had been one little rift in the gray fog of her daily life, however. And through it she had seen Edith well married, with perhaps a girl to do the house work, and a room where Edith's mother could fold her hands and sit in the long silences without thought that were her sanctuary against life.
"Is that the place, mother?"
"Yes." Edith's unwonted solicitude gave her courage.
"Edie, I want to ask you something."
"Well?" But the girl stiffened.
"Lou hasn't been round, lately."
"That's all over, mother."
"You mean you've quarreled? Oh, Edie, and me planning you'd have a nice home and everything."
"He never meant to marry me, if that's what you mean."
Mrs. Boyd turned on her back impatiently.
"You could have had him. He was crazy about you. Trouble is with you, you think you've got a fellow hard and fast, and you begin acting up. Then, first thing you know - "
Some of that strange new tolerance persisted in the girl. "Listen, mother," she said. "I give you my word, Lou'd run a mile if he thought any girl wanted to marry him. I know him better than you do. If any one ever does rope him in, he'll stick about three months, and then beat it."
"I don't know why we have to have men, anyhow. Put out the gas, Edie. No, don't open the window. The night air makes me cough."
Edith started downstairs and set to work in the kitchen. Something would have to be done about the house. Dan was taking to staying out at nights, because the untidy rooms repelled him. And there was the question of food. Her mother had never learned to cook, and recently more and more of the food had been something warmed out of a tin. If only they could keep a girl, one who would scrub and wash dishes. There was a room on the third floor, an attic, full now of her mother's untidy harborings of years, that might be used for a servant. Or she could move up there, and they could get a roomer. The rent would pay a woman to come in now and then to clean up.
She had played with that thought before, and the roomer she had had in mind was Willy Cameron. But the knowledge that he knew the Cardews had somehow changed all that. She couldn't picture him going from this sordid house to the Cardew mansion, and worse still, returning to it afterwards. She saw him there, at the Cardews, surrounded by bowing flunkies - a picture of wealth gained from the movies - and by women who moved indolently, trailing through long vistas of ball room and conservatory in low gowns without sleeves, and draped with ropes of pearls. Women who smoked cigarettes after dinner and played bridge for money.
She hated the Cardews.
On her way to her room she paused at her mother's door.
"Asleep yet, mother?"
"No. Feel like I'm not going to sleep at all."
"Mother," she said, with a desperate catch in her voice, "we've got to change things around here. It isn't fair to Dan, for one thing. We've got to get a girl to do the work. And to do that we'll have to rent a room."
She heard the thin figure twist impatiently.
"I've never yet been reduced to taking roomers, and I'm not going to let the neighbors begin looking down on me now.
"Now, listen, mother - "
"Go on away, Edie."
"But suppose we could get a young man, a gentleman, who would be out all but three evenings a week. I don't know, but Mr. Cameron at the store isn't satisfied where he is. He's got a dog, and they haven't any yard. We've got a yard."
"I won't be bothered with any dog," said the querulous voice, from the darkness.
With a gesture of despair the girl turned away. What was the use, anyhow? Let them go on, then, her mother and Dan. Only let them let her go on, too. She had tried her best to change herself, the house, the whole rotten mess. But they wouldn't let her.
Her mood of disgust continued the next morning. When, at eleven o'clock, Louis Akers sauntered in for the first time in days, she looked at him somberly but without disdain. Lou or somebody else, what did it matter? So long as something took her for a little while away from the sordidness of home, its stale odors, its untidiness, its querulous inmates.
"What's got into you lately, Edith?" he inquired, lowering his voice. "You used to be the best little pal ever. Now the other day, when I called up - "
"Had the headache," she said laconically. "Well?"
"Want to play around this evening?"
She hesitated. Then she remembered where Willy Cameron would be that night, and her face hardened. Had any one told Edith that she was beginning to care for the lame young man in the rear room, with his exaggerated chivalry toward women, his belief in home, and his sentimental whistling, she would have laughed. But he gave her something that the other men she knew robbed her of, a sort of self-respect. It was perhaps not so much that she cared for him, as that he enabled her to care more for herself.
But he was going to dinner with Lily Cardew.
"I might, depending on what you've got to offer."
"I've got a car now, Edith. I'm not joking. There was a lot of outside work, and the organization came over. I've been after it for six months. We can have a ride, and supper somewhere. How's the young man with the wooden leg?"
"If you want to know I'll call him out and let him tell you."
"Quick, aren't you?" He smiled down at where she stood, firmly entrenched behind a show case. "Well, don't fall in love with him. That's all. I'm a bad man when I'm jealous."
He sauntered out, leaving Edith gazing thoughtfully after him. He did not know, nor would have cared had he known, that her acceptance of his invitation was a complex of disgust of home, of the call of youth, and of the fact that Willy Cameron was dining at the Cardews that night.